By Daniela Olszewska
Reviewed by William Emery
Imagine an Eastern European-style futuristic mish-mash of totalitarian surveillance states. Imagine the archives of their secret police, the language of such documents, each mundane detail an excuse for imprisonment, torture, or execution of the surveilled. If each nosy neighbor, disruptive agent, and professional spook downloaded his or her raw data into a central server, frontloaded with reptilian subconscious associations and the airy steel of unexamined assumptions and littered with the now eerily banal, the files produced might resemble the poetry of Daniela Olszewska's new volume from Artifice Books, Citizen J.
the least j could do
is give up her hosts,
but she persists—
occipital + code –
chomping, j feels
At once a paean to the intimate possibilities of the totalitarian state—who has not wanted a lover to know us completely—and an affirmation of its opposite, the hopefully eternal spirit of rebellion against such states, Citizen J excites, terrifies, and compromises the reader in unequal and unpredictable measure.
The collection's structure is novelistic. Unfolding across six "chapters," j's story toggles between the present and past tense. The chapters representing the present are all entitled "citizen j." In these, the eponymous j, a seemingly automatic and natural subversive in politics and love, has been captured and is undergoing a brutal rehabilitation. "already, she's apologizing / for things that haven't even / happened yet." The other chapters, "the twelve husbands of citizen j," "j trains for many different kinds of careers," and "the twelve wives of citizen j," break up the scenes of torture and reprogramming and function as world-building. The weaving in and out, from pure interrogative horror ("there were more than 9 / ways to peel the skin off") to comparatively lighthearted field reporting ("j rendezvouses with him in public restrooms and mid-sized luxury sedans. he is all gussied in ascot and champagne cork heel") is deft.
The poetic lines in "citizen j" tend toward shorthand, containing pluses, slashes, and dashes in lieu of certain words and phrases, while the "husbands" and "wives" sections read like prose. The section on careers occupies a middle ground, with three long limbed, unrhymed couplets completed by a single-line parenthetical. Olszewska's commitment to these three forms help to anchor a text that is otherwise relentlessly polyphonic, referential, arch, and given to innuendo:
—our new hire was covered in good-luck-w/thats. in the sexy sores
that come from wearing a badge wrong. here's a smart bomb for you,
a smart bomb for you…the two in back are going to have to share.
j couldn't for the life of her. come on now, it's good practice
for when we're all actually of age. now, who wants to learn
how to compose a ransom note? so, she said, yes inspector,
(that pencil pusher was always supposed to have gone there.)
Olszewska's sense of innuendo—usually but not exclusively sexual—is a dominant force in these poems. It is easy to be dazzled by her inventiveness: "wrapping her blanket over someone else's pig," "they both totally put those arias in their place," "he slides a stirrup around her hot hot holster," "trying to play roger that behind the break room," or "just started to dirty up their peaches." But this habit of insinuation has its roots in the very nature of the surveillance state. The suggestion of crime is ideal. It is both perfectly incriminating and perfectly deniable.
If the reader continually wonders just who j is or is supposed to be, it is in part because Olszewska continually redefines her limits: "j refuses to keep things / classy," "it's well-known that she had recently taken to being fundamentally dishonest in four separate languages," "if not for us j probably would have grown up to be something of a cossack," and "j is coming to love / echelon, to appreciate / minefield." She is ultimately reduced—because writing is reduction, because Olszewska knows that—to energy. When she is eventually and inevitably reeducated, she is still electric, still not quite fixable in space or definable by intention.
More compelling is the complicity Olszewska is able to create between the reader and j's tormentors. Reading is surveillance. The poet is the informant. The reader is the State. This creepy feeling is reinforced, or perhaps enforced, by a consistent but never over-bearing use of the all encompassing, ever-winking "we":
she tried to hide it
w/gingham + tropical
prints. though we took
to using our insidevoices.
the doctors suggested
a suckerpunch. don't ask
us to explain in terms
like patty or cake.
j's observers are not monsters. They—we—are able to view j's adventures, desires, and struggles with sympathy and even admiration. And yet, "we waste a lot / of earwig, we tangle / a lot of neural."
It is impossible to read Citizen J without ruminating on the terrors of the Soviet Union—Olszewska was born in Soviet Warsaw but educated in the United States—as well as current troubles concerning electronic privacy, net neutrality, perpetual war, LGBT rights, Pussy Riot, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. But the power of this volume of poetry lies in its autonomy from those concerns. j's world could just as easily be an internal totalitarianism, a commentary on the tyranny of the superego that sacrifices its revolutionary, odd, and ungovernable desires for a strongly policed coherence, or to the role form and language play within poetry itself. Citizen J exists within a purely literary space, a collection in conversation more with George Orwell, Zbigniew Herbert, and Anne Waldman than yesterday's and today's headlines:
thus j arrives, (burning +
melting) to meet her maker
for the third time ever.
mohawked + vested
in brownshirt, the maker
(tenaciously) at her bulletproofbox.